Pingüino de Humboldt National Reserve, Chile

Photo: Silvio Rossi [CC BY 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Today’s mission involves penguins. Humboldt penguins. The aquatic birds, named after the cold-water current that flows up the Pacific coast of South America, are only found in Chile and Peru. They stand two feet tall and have black-and-white bands. They can swim up to 30 miles per hour and dive down 500 feet. Sea lions consider them a tasty treat. They can only catch them in the water, though; the heavy sea mammals are otherwise lazy sunbathers. Since it’s nesting season right now, the penguins spend most of their time on the shore. But that means they blend in with the rocks. So your mission is even more difficult.

You’re heading 250 miles north of Santiago. The Coquimbo Region is the narrowest part of Chile. It’s where the Andes are closest to the sea, and clear skies make it a popular spot for astronomical observatories. The capital of the region is La Serena. Chile’s second-oldest city is known for its beaches. After a few days being a lazy sunbather yourself, you decide to travel even farther north when you learn about the penguin islands.

Yes, penguin islands. Off the coast of Punta de Choros, a small fishing village whose beach is lined with colorful boats, lie three islands. Islas Chañaral, Choros, and Damas are rocky and uninhabited. At least by humans. Pods of bottlenose dolphins and migratory whales (blue, fin, and sperm) live in their chilly waters. Marine and sea otters lounge on boulders and slide into the sea to go fishing. Albatrosses and Peruvian diving petrels use the islands to breed. So do hundreds of Humboldt penguins. Because of them, the islands have been designated Pingüino de Humboldt National Reserve.

The creation of Pingüino de Humboldt National Reserve set aside more than 2,000 acres for the flightless birds, whose conservation status is considered vulnerable. Visitors are only allowed on Isla Damas. The gorgeous island has two beaches that look like they were plucked from the Caribbean. A ring trail, which takes 45 minutes to hike, passes them, rocky hills, and a small campsite. But you’re on the lookout for penguins.

During the summer, the birds are active as they hunt and swim. This time of year, it’s harder to find them, since they’re nesting in the high rocks. Your guide keeps pointing toward dark patches. You don’t see any movement, though. It must be nap time. It isn’t until you’re returning, a bit deflated, to Playa Las Tijeras that you notice motion. Suddenly, one of the rocks starts to rise and make a braying sound like a donkey. Others soon follow. The quiet island is no longer peaceful. But you’re happily surrounded by black-and-white birds. This may even be your favorite beach day in Chile.

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